"Youth is no guarantee of innovation" and "age is no guarantee of efficiency". As these significant lines in the 23rd film adventure of Ian Fleming's super-spy James Bond attest, Skyfall treads (successfully) a fine line between reinventing the franchise anew for the modern era (after the inspired reboot of Casino Royale and the disappointing, water-treading Quantum of Solace) and keeping the faith in the old days. Simultaneously sophisticated and spectacular but never merely throwaway, the new film introduces in the Bond tradition a meta-narrative about how to find your own path while upholding past values, by asking repeatedly the question: can a Cold War spy successfully remain relevant in these post-9/11 days, when nothing is what it used to be when they first trained? Is Bond a heirloom from days long gone or can he still find his place in our time?

     The script itself, by series regulars Neil Purvis and Robert Wade and Gladiator and Coriolanus scribe John Logan, begs the question throughout, as an aged, ailing Bond (Daniel Craig) faces the possible collapse of MI6 when a mysterious cyber-criminal with a huge chip on his shoulder towards department boss M (Judi Dench) comes into possession of a hard drive with the identities of British undercover agents. That technology is no substitute for some of the "old-fashioned ways" is embedded in the film's own fabric (and is made clear in the quotes at the top of this piece, taken from a playful conversation between Bond and the Department's new gadget master Q, played by Ben Whishaw).

     But Skyfall never succumbs to cheap nostalgia, since it smartly plays with the series' shorthand in casually elegant winks; it's also a more serious film as it recentres the character within an English tradition of thoughtful spy thrillers, while never losing sight part of the Bond films' charms is that they don't take themselves overly seriously. Current "keepers of the flame" Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson (Albert R. Broccoli's daughter and son-in-law) have been betting on bringing outside directors and writers, and that pays off brilliantly in what is probably the series' most exquisitely crafted film in years, with two classic action set-pieces: a dazzlingly fluid fight in a Shanghai glass-walled high-rise and a magnificently fiery climax in the Scottish highlands, both masterfully lighted by DP Roger Deakins and edited by Stuart Baird, and staged by director Sam Mendes with an effortlessly precise, coolly clinical professionalism that fits the film's hybrid nature like a glove.

     Both the script and Mr. Mendes' approach demand more range from the actors than the series usually asks; Mr. Craig steps up to the plate with gusto, though it's Ms. Dench who steals the spotlight with her M moving centre stage in a series of expertly modulated scenes. The surprising soft spot lies in the film's villain: Javier Bardem's wonderfully manipulative master criminal is another great performance by the Spanish actor that also has form within the series' tradition, but on one hand he seems to be channeling far too much his award-winning killer from No Country for Old Men, while on the other his over-the-top flamboyance seems a distracting sideshow from the film's heart.

     What really matters, in fact, is James Bond's own voyage of self-discovery, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, in a narrative arc that brings to a close the cycle started with Casino Royale and sets up the tables for the future episodes in an avowed throwback to the early Sean Connery days. Agent 007's mission number 23 is probably the most layered and resounding film in the series, and it does so by building upon all that came before it.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Judi Dench

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Cinematography: Roger Deakins  (colour, digital processing by Company 3, widescreen)
Music: Thomas Newman
Designer: Dennis Gassner
Costumes: Jany Temime
Editors: Stuart Baird, Kate Baird
Special effects: Steve Begg, Chris Corbould
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures, Eon Productions, B23 Ltd) 
United Kingdom/USA, 2012, 144 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 10 (Lisbon), October 18th 2012


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